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A dramatic end to a week in Yarl's Wood

Mark Easton | 13:31 UK time, Friday, 19 June 2009

A couple of days ago in Bedfordshire, uniformed immigration officers surrounded Melchior Singo as his screaming children looked on. They dragged him away as his wife Ethol tried to stop them, to talk to her husband, to keep the family together.

Amid highly charged and chaotic scenes inside the Yarl's Wood detention centre on Wednesday afternoon, two officers were injured - one claims to have been bitten, another stabbed in the neck with a pen. Children were vomiting and weeping as a number of men were marched away.

Ethol then took nine-year-old Olger and seven-year-old Renee into a side room and instructed them to pray.

It was the dramatic end to a week when the desperation of those facing deportation boiled over.

The Singo family is from Malawi. Their claims to stay in Britain have all but come to an end after living for the past five years in Leyland near Preston in Lancashire. They were active members of a local church and the children both attended the scout troop. Melchior worked at the local hospital; Ethol had a job in Tesco.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of their residency application, the family has been shown support by people in Leyland.

A church newsletter shows what can happen when people are asked to choose between friendship and the system:

"The PPC and the monks think that it is our Christian duty to support them in their hour of need, and we know how many of you are concerned for them. There will be fund-raising events happening. As usual this Sunday we will attempt to talk to them through the computer."

It seems clear that, this week, Melchior's resilience snapped. After staying with his family for over a month in Yarl's Wood, with the threat of imminent deportation hanging over them, he was among twenty detainees who took part in what is being described as a hunger strike.

Ethol, who I spoke to last night, says it was a period of "fasting and praying", but it was undoubtedly a challenge to the system. There were demands from a number of the families held in the centre for better healthcare, but their decision to boycott the centre's canteen and to move their mattresses into the corridors looks to many like a protest borne of desperation.

It was clearly a potentially dangerous situation for the staff at Yarl's Wood, too. Children and parents were sitting and lying around the centre and staff could not clean or go about their normal duties.

They had tried to calm the situation with the offer of one-to-one meetings with any detainee who had a grievance or a problem about their treatment. However, a small number of protesters had convinced the rest that they should all stick together. Their sit-in would continue until someone from the Home Office addressed them as a group.

According to Ethol, with the impasse continuing, the management from the private security firm Serco decided to take action just after lunch on Wednesday.

"At about 2.15, twenty to thirty officers came in, rushing to where were sitting," she told me. "They were wearing black and white Serco uniforms. Someone was filming it all."

Ethol was having her hair braided by another detainee and her two children were sitting playing cards when the operation began.

"They saw it all happen. People were being sick everywhere, throwing up, crying and screaming. My children were really traumatised."

The Home Office described the operation this way:

"Officers separated a small number of detainees from the general population who were disrupting the normal operation of Yarls Wood. The separation was conducted by staff trained in conflict resolution. It was undertaken with the utmost sensitivity and there have been no injuries to detainees."

Ethol and the children were escorted from Yarl's Wood that evening and taken by van to Kingsley House near Gatwick. They were apparently told that Melchior would join them shortly afterwards.

In fact, he had been taken to Colnbrook near Heathrow. Ethol's attempts to contact her husband were rebuffed, one officer telling her that her husband was not allowed to make or accept any calls. I am told that the UK Border Agency later apologised for what it accepted was a mistake.

What strikes me about all of this is how easy it is to demand deportations and tough sanctions against those who attempt to live in Britain without permissions, and also how hard it is for those professionals charged with making the system work in the face of the emotions and apparent desperation of those caught up in it. Particularly the children. (It is Ethol Singo's birthday today.)

PS: The Children's Commissioner for England, Sir Al Aynsley-Green is urging the UK Border Agency to rethink its treatment of children caught up in the deportation process following his hard-hitting report which I posted on recently.


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